In the first phase of salary cap economics, which lasted from 1994 to 2009, prudent teams were criticized for not spending all of their salary cap money, and rightfully so.
Under the previous collective bargaining agreement, salary cap dollars were one-year rentals. Teams were given their cap room in February, but any unused cap dollars vanished at the end of the season or went into the pockets of owners.
One of the nice parts of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement is the "carryover." Teams that don't spend all of their cap dollars in a particular year can carry over those dollars to the next year. It's a team's decision how much it wants to carry over, but if it manages its cap wisely, it can handle what is expected to be a flat salary cap for the next couple of years.
Where prudence was criticized as cheap in the past, smart cap management will be rewarded.
Teams carried over $301 million -- roughly $9.4 million a team -- to this year's $120.6 million salary cap. Carryover is gold when you consider that salaries keep rising for top starters and that the cap is less than the $123 million it was in 2009.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers carried over $23.5 million and were able to purchase the best free-agency class of 2012: Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright. John Elway of the Broncos had a $27 million carryover and had the luxury of bringing in Peyton Manning's $19 million salary. The Dallas Cowboys ($17.1 million) and Washington Redskins ($13.3 million) thought they managed their carryovers correctly, but the league and the NFLPA agreed before free agency that both teams were too tricky in the uncapped 2010 season and docked them a combined $46 million of cap room for the next two years.
There will be significantly less in carryover after this season.
Despite the carryover luxury, teams can't go crazy spending. The NFL management council is projecting that the cap may go up only $300,000 to $500,000 a year for the next two or three years, a number that is contested by the NFL Players Association. All salary cap numbers are subject to an audit and possible negotiation after each season, but let's assume that projection is accurate.
Teams have about $279 million of cap room currently available with all but about 60 draft choices signed, but less than $278 million of room is available in 2013. That doesn't take into account slight increases in base salaries that occur each season, or any cap carryover from 2012.
When you consider that free agency this offseason started with about $600 million of room, having less cap room in 2013 than there is in 2012 is a concern for teams. More than 450 free agents are likely to be available, which means teams must pick and choose whom they will keep and whom they will let go.
Let's look first at the 2012 players. The Seahawks signed all of their draft choices and had more than $12 million available. They had the luxury of trading for tight end Kellen Winslow and picking up his $4 million payout in 2012. The Jaguars have $20 million, the Eagles $18 million, the Chiefs $15 million, and the Browns and Bengals $17 million each. Without signing Andrew Luck, the Indianapolis Colts have $15 million and the Tennessee Titans $16 million.
The Bucs spent the big bucks in free agency and still have $16.7 million of room.
The interesting part of the 2013 cap is that the AFC has room up top, particularly the AFC South. To keep their offense together during the Peyton Manning years, the Colts were always tight against the cap. Before a Luck deal, they led the NFL in 2013 with $43 million of room. Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith had a tough 2012, deciding to keep Arian Foster and Chris Myers, but it cost the Texans Eric Winston and Mario Williams. The Texans are fifth on the list with $24.8 million of room.
The Bengals have $42 million, the Browns $40 million, the Dolphins $39 million, the Titans $16 million and the Ravens are eighth with $15 million. The only NFC team in the top eight is the Bucs with $21 million.
Which teams will be tight? The Jets are $19 million over. The Eagles will have to make some decisions after the season because they are $16 million over, but they can offset it with their carryover from this year. The Panthers are $16 million over. The Cowboys are $15 million over. The Panthers are slightly more than $10 million over and so are the Steelers.
Don't read those bloated numbers as meaning teams will go crazy in free agency.Free agency started with $600 million of room in 2012, but only 19 unrestricted free agents who went to new teams received contracts in excess of $5 million a year. Big-name free agents require big-time contracts and eat up big-time cap room.
Mario Williams, for example, had a $9.8 million first-year cap number. The Bucs' signings of Jackson, Nicks and Wright ate up $33.25 million. Figure most top free agents to gobble up $10 million of cap room.
Because the NFL is in a tight salary cap period, there are limits on the teams' credit cards.